Review of Gilda (1946)

In a masquerade party sequence from Gilda, the camera pans over a wild and chaotic scene overfilled with dancing revelers, glittering confetti and streamers. A drunken partygoer screams when she unmasks a man and finds a dark wound in the middle of his forehead. The murder victim, it's hinted, was a Nazi but both the murder and Nazi subtext turn out to be less significant than the bizarre love triangle of a man, his employer and best friend, and the woman both desire. Gilda's a gorgeous mess of a movie, cobbled together out of plot elements that don't fit. But the film powers by on plenty of style and the charisma of rapturous Rita Hayworth.

Although Hayworth gets top billing, she doesn't appear until fifteen minutes into the film to allow the relationship to develop between shady gambler Johnny and shadier Buenos Aires casino owner Ballin. After Ballin saves Johnny's life using his big cane, the two become close. Ballin hires Johnny to police the casino after Johnny agrees with Ballin's credo to stay away from women. The truth about their relationship is barely kept in the subtext when Johnny openly expresses his disappointment after Ballin breaks his own credo and marries Gilda, incredibly Johnny's ex-lover.

It's understandable why Johnny's and Ballin's gay relationship is mostly closeted in a 1946 film. What isn't clear is why Nazism gets the same treatment. In a plot development unrelated to the gay subtext, pistol-packing Germans come to Buenos Aires looking for Ballin after Germany's defeat in WWII. Their dispute with Ballin is purely financial; philosophically, Ballin is on the same team. His passion for elitism and plans for world domination is equally matched by his hatred of the "stupid little" masses. Yet the word "Nazi" is never mentioned.

A greater problem than the screenwriters' coyness is the lack of sophistication surrounding the plot element of Ballin's megalomania. Various set pieces--an attempt on Ballin's life, the sinister cartel he heads, documents supposed to give their possessor the power of world domination--remain lightly-sketched and never gain any substance or coherence. The screenwriters stumble at writing action. But they excel at creating biting humour out of Gilda's and Johnny's hatred for each other and in skillfully shifting the viewer's sympathies from Johnny to Gilda as the movie progresses.

Gilda's innovative for its sympathetic portrayal of a sexual woman. Unlike other noir women who use sexuality to corrupt innocent men (Kitty Collins in The Killers and Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity are examples of the classic femme fatale), Gilda's brought down and sadistically punished for cheating on husband Ballin to make her ex-lover Johnny jealous. After Ballin discovers Gilda and Johnny together and apparently kills himself, the Oedipally guilty Johnny recreates himself in Ballin's image and takes over as head of the evil empire, marries Gilda and makes her prisoner. Punished for being sexual, Gilda fights back by using her sexuality to perform a striptease at the casino. It's a radical move, even now, and it's what makes Gilda worth watching.

Director Charles Vidor puts Rita Hayworth in revealing costumes and uses lots of gratuitous hair-tossing. Hayworth makes double entendres out of the skimpiest of lines to make Gilda possibly the raciest movie out of the 1940s that I've ever seen. But as much as the film sexualizes its subject, it also pays tribute to the ingenuity of a woman who uses the very thing she's punished for to earn her freedom.

(March 15, 2001)

Dark City home | film titles | directors | book titles and writers | feature | linx

(© NOIR, 2014)